Beach Town in a Forest

Beach Town in a Forest
Beach Town in a Forest, Pine Knoll Shores located in Carteret County on North Carolina's Crysal Coast. Photo compliments of Bill Flexman and Dave Prutzman

Saturday, July 4, 2015

S.S. Pevensey

As remote as Bogue Banks seems today and as it certainly was in the 1860s, the Civil War touched its banks. The war story most clearly part of the history of Pine Knoll Shores is the account of the S.S. Pevensey. 

The S.S. Pevensey, or what is left of it, lies in the ocean waters off Pine Knoll Shores near the dismantled Iron Steamer Pier, now the area of one of our ocean beach accesses. The wreck is so heavy and imbedded so deeply in sand that, according to David Moore, curator of the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, “It isn’t going anywhere” and still lies 100 yards off the beach. In the past, at low tide, part of this iron-hulled, side-wheel steamer could still be seen. Now, only at an extreme low tide when the moon, sun, and force of nature are fully aligned will a beach goer be lucky to see a glimpse of the wreckage.

This type of ship was commonly used by Confederate forces to run the Union blockade during the American Civil War. According to the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, the S.S. Pevensey was forced aground by the Union Supply Ship New Berne on June 9, 1864. It should be noted the Pevensey had been chased by an armed Union side-wheeler just the day before and had tossed part, but not all, of its cargo into the sea in order to escape capture or destruction. Reportedly, the Pevensey was not armed.

Northam Iron Works of Southampton, England, built this wooden ship with an iron-plated hull for Charles Lungley of London. The paddlewheel was designed in a special way to avoid excessive noise and splashing, minimizing detection as it traveled in the dark of night.

Unfortunately, on the night of June 9, 1864, after several successful runs from its home base in Bermuda, the Pevensey unwittingly passed its destination on the Cape Fear River. She still contained cargo that was most likely intended to resupply Confederate troops at Fort Fisher or Fort Caswell in Wilmington, but missed the entrance to the Cape Fear River, the route to both forts. According to an account of the grounding of the wreck and subsequent capture of its crew found in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of Rebellion, by US Naval Officer T.A. Harris from on board the New Berne, the cargo contained, “. . . arms, blankets, shoes, cloth, clothing, lead, bacon and numerous packages marked to individuals” as well as tompions (weather protectors for Whitworth cannons), leading to speculation that there were guns (perhaps cannons) underneath the musket boxes. Instead of the Cape Fear River, the Pevensey found itself in the waters off the coast of Bogue Banks heading northeast toward Union-occupied Beaufort.

Most of the east coast waters were patrolled by Union ships to keep the South from exporting and importing valuable goods and getting supplies to Confederate troops. Navigating under cover of night, although necessary, must have been extremely difficult since the shoreline was mostly uninhabited, making it difficult to see landmarks. Apparently, the captain did not realize his ship had missed her destination and was traveling at a slow pace until it was spotted and pursued by the Union supply ship New Berne. As the Pevensey tried to distance herself from the pursuing New Berne, cargo was thrown overboard to lighten the load and allow the Pevensey to pick up speed; but, as the New Berne got closer, she let loose shots that damaged and stopped the Pevensey. Unable to continue, the Pevensey turned north toward the beach and ran aground. Lowering six auxiliary boats, it carried the crew, with the exception of one left onboard to set the boiler to explode, and made for the beach, actually believing they had a chance of escaping. The crew and prisoners were captured by Union Calvary troops and taken to Fort Macon.
In 2000, Surface Interval Diving Company (SIDCO), based in Beaufort and greatly interested in diving projects related to the Civil War, was asked by the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources to undertake an archaeological survey of the Pevensey wreckage. The dives made in 2001 and 2002 were extremely difficult due to murky waters, strong currents and an inordinate amount of maritime and human debris. SIDCO’s excellent website indicates that diving into the site of the wreckage of the Pevensey was like “diving into a . . . Dempsey Dumpster.” If you frequently walk the beach, you will come across all sorts of debris brought in with the tides from the days when the Iron Steamer fishing pier was operating. One can imagine strong gusts of wind sweeping all sorts of fishing equipment and personal items into the surf that ended up trapped inside this wreck.
SIDCO’s website indicates that its divers worked closely with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the North Carolina Maritime Museum, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, the National Park Service and the United States Coast Guard. SIDCO’S account of the Pevensey has historical facts not found on other online sites, including an actual report of the ship’s capture written from the New Berne by US Naval Lieutenant T.A. Harris, mentioned above. It also includes extensive details, drawings and diagrams of what the internal structure of the Pevensey would have contained. Those interested in this information can visit There is also a drawing by SIDCO’s curator, Bobby Willis, of what the iron-hulled, side-wheel steamer looked like. SIDCO credits the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion for some details listed on its site.

Underwater exploration requires a great deal of funding, and SIDCO is always in need of private funds and grateful when they are generously given. The diving exploration of the S.S. Pevensey was funded by the state of North Carolina, and when the report and initial assessment of the first two dives were completed, funding dried up and the diving project was halted.
The story doesn’t end here. In 2011, a large wooden structure embedded with pieces of metal was found partially buried in sand by Jim Francesconi, director with the North Carolina Marine Fisheries, who was on the beach near the Clamdigger Inn removing tires washed ashore by a hurricane.
Mr. Francesconi alerted Pine Knoll Shores Public Services Director Ernie Rudolph. It was thought this structure was part of the wreck Pevensey. Because the caulking and tar were believed to be of the Civil War period, the structure was taken to the NC Maritime Museum in Beaufort for examination and verification. Unfortunately, there was not enough evidence to prove this theory, and the museum didn’t study it further.

In 2005, the North Carolina Office of Archives and History placed a North Carolina Historic Marker near the site of the old Iron Steamer Pier, and a dedication ceremony was held on September 10, 2014.

Special thanks goes to David Moore, nautical archaeology curator for the NC Maritime Museum, and Nautical Archaeologist Consultant Rob Reedy for their assistance with this article. Both men serve as consultants to SIDCO.

The story of the Iron Steamer Pier & Motel which was built at the site of the wreckage is contained in an associated post.

Post Author: Barbara Milhaven
To contact the author or The History Committee